Sea Ice Breakup Could Hit Polar Bears Hard in Churchill and Elsewhere

This post was written by National Wildlife Federation’s Sterling Miller, who is on the ground in Churchill, the “polar bear capital of the world,” to check in on how polar bears are handling one of the lowest sea ice years on record.

One of the greatest thrills a person can experience is interacting with animals in the wild. The polar bear is one of the earth’s most magnificent animals, and today we saw many of them here on the banks of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba.

A Churchill polar bear

Every year the polar bears in this area are forced to abandon their habitat, sea ice, and retreat to a land refuge where there is next to nothing for them to eat.

The bears roam along the shore and, in the fall, begin to congregate around Churchill where the ice begins to form up again.

Sea Ice = Food

Once the ice forms, the bears abandon their summer-long fast and eagerly return to their natural habitat, the cold frozen ice.

From this ice platform, polar bears begin their hunt for seals.  Indeed, polar bears are adapted to feed almost exclusively on seals.  Unlike the grizzly or brown bears that eat a wide variety of foods, polar bears cannot survive without seals.

Longer and Longer Fasts for Hudson Bay Polar Bears

The polar bears in Hudson Bay are different from polar bears further north in that the ice is completely gone here in the summer and the bears have no option but to fast.

If this fast lasts too long, it impacts their ability to gain enough fat during their winter feast of seals to recuperate from their long summer fast.

Hudson Bay should be covered in ice by now and bears should be heading out to start hunting

In the 1970s, this fast typically lasted about 120 days for most bears.  However, this fast has been extending for longer and longer periods as the ice from which they hunt their prey has been breaking up earlier in the spring and forming up later in the fall.

We could be looking at a full five months of fasting for these bears if conditions do not improve quickly.

This year was close to a record for early breakup (July 9) and it appears that it will be closer to or set a new record for ice formation in the fall. 

As a result, some of the polar bears the Canadian researchers are seeing are in worse condition than normal

If the ice doesn’t form up soon, some of these bears will die.

How to Help Polar Bears

The driving force behind this change in ice is the greenhouse gas accumulation in the earth’s environment that is causing the earth to warm everywhere and is more accelerated in the far north than in more temperate zones.

If you love the polar bears and want to preserve the opportunity for you and your children to someday see these magnificent creatures as we did today, it is essential to curb our addiction to fossil fuels the burning of which is causing the earth’s climate to change.

Time’s a-wasting for us, and especially for the polar bears.